The WELS, Then the WESS Newsletter, 30 Years On

by Charles S. Fineman, Harvard University

WESS Newsletter
Fall 2006
Vol. 30, no. 1

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It hardly seems possible, but both the calendar and my colleague here at Harvard, Paul Vermouth, the WESS Newsletter's current editor, cannot be lying when they tell me the publication has now been coming out for over 30 years.  The present writer was not, literally speaking, present at the actual moment of the WELS Newsletter's birth -- that occurred at an ALA meeting that he did not attend.  But he certainly remembers George Vrooman, the senior bibliographer in what at the time was called the Bibliography and Acquisitions Department at Yale University's Sterling Memorial Library, returning to New Haven and recounting, in humorous and self-deprecating detail, how two people at a WELS organizing meeting (himself and Agnes Dietrich, of Cleveland Public Library; of whom, in an editorial capacity, little was subsequently heard) had shot up their hands when there was a call for volunteers to help edit the new publication of the newly established discussion groups.  It would be facile to say that the rest was (or still is?) history, so the writer will content himself with saying that, in those days in the mid-1970's , when automation in American offices was still almost synonymous with a fancy electric typewriter, and when final drafts, more often than not, were produced by a departmental secretary, the department's very able secretary, Joyce Brooks, and the writer were genially pressed into service as assistants on the editorial and production side of the new publication.

To say that the production of the newsletter was informal and on the cheap in its early days would be an understatement.  Since the discussion group -- which very quickly petitioned for and was granted sectional status by ACRL -- thought it was putting out an informal publication, and disseminating it (in paper form only, it goes without saying) to a relatively small group of subscribers,‚ the Yale University Library, and, subsequently, the University Library at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where the present writer eventually came to roost for six years after briefly serving at the IFLA Secretariat in The Hague, generously if a bit unwittingly subsidized the production of many of the early issues with the editor's time -- as today -- being contributed‚ to the good cause.  A post-Proposition 13 budget crunch of the sort all too familiar to librarians in the University of California system, combined with mysterious and growing popularity for the Newsletter (which very early on started to be sent to non-ALA members; to librarians outside the US; and to all national libraries in what at the time was considered to be Western Europe) triggered the long, exhausting, prolix, but eventually successful campaign to win recognition of the merits of the newsletter from various committees and oversight groups within ACRL and ultimately force the Association to allow all sections and discussion groups to receive a modest subsidy to produce these newsletters.  Those with an insatiable appetite for reading about how such hoops in ACRL's machinery were jumped through for 15+ years are referred to the writer's three-ring notebooks which may yet be in storage with the ALA archives in Champaign-Urbana. 

Spontaneously written and offered contributions from members, while not non-existent, could not quite fill the two issues the Section put out per year; to supplement the modest flow of ideas as well as usable text, the editor tended to wait for inspiration of one sort or another to strike (usually in the form of a question such as: what sort of bibliographic control might there be for publications issued in Vatican City?), then cast about for the ideal‚ expert author, and then wait and wait until something appeared.  Most often colleagues in the US and abroad were more than happy and willing to respond and share their expertise.  The focus also tended to be heavily on the collections side, with articles about the state of publishing in a given country; or on bibliographic essays on West European topics in the humanities and social sciences.  Cataloguers and reference librarians were probably left hungry for material that would be directly relevant to their special fields. 

When the editorial operation moved, with the editor, from California to Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois), the fortuitous proximity to ALA headquarters made the Newsletter's life even more interesting as well as more complex.  It was at this time that the Newsletter, on its own (if memory serves), became one of the first ALA units to get an ISSN assigned to its publication.  The ALA Headquarters Library became interested in documenting the publishing activities of all sections and arrangements were put in place to ensure that all of the WESS Newsletter's issues would be made a permanent part of ALA's documentary history.  Small and technical though those steps may now seem, in a pre-Internet, pre-e-mail era, they were significant steps that, taken together, helped put the Newsletter very much on the map of the library profession's news, research, and information activity, where it still very much is today. 

The fact that one of the first editors and the current editor are now colleagues in the same collection development department of the Harvard College Library is a coincidence that both amuses and in no way amazes the author; our world, though big and expanded, is still, in many ways, a small one, inhabited by hard-working librarians who lend their writing, editorial, and even fund-raising talents to the service of the profession beyond their specific institutional jobs. 

The present writer may have moved on to other library interests (Scandinavian bibliography and acquisitions chief among them) and even a second life‚ as a free-lance translator, but his warm thoughts and best wishes go out on this very special anniversary to the Section and its pioneering Newsletter with which he had the honor to be associated for so many years.


Editor: Paul Vermouth

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